sharp curves and time-out-of-time (TOOT!)

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. There is what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on within the context of a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say. This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too.

My neighbor is thinking about going back to college but – like many people – is not sure what he wants to study. I asked Kevin if he knew the difference between psychology and sociology. He did. (I wish I had recorded his answers; they were great!) He said something to the effect that psychology is about the mind and how a person thinks of things, and sociology has to do with how people relate with one another.

Taking a sharp curve in conversation

Then I asked if he knew the implications of this difference in terms of time. “What?” He was puzzled and asked me to repeat the question. I elaborated: If you start from psychology, you make the individual the center; if you start from sociology, you make the interconnections the most important. “Oh!” He got it, saying something about the inter-relatedness of all things. “You lost me for a minute.” Teasing, he added: “You took a sharp curve there, but I gotcha!”

Kevin is one of those flexible kind of folk who is accustomed to having things come at him unexpectedly, not according to the usual ways. His reflexes are quick. Usually quicker than mine! Foin. With most of my friends (and many of my colleagues, too), it occasionally happens that I do or say something that catches them momentarily at a loss, then they’ll pick up and make the next move and it’s my turn to sputter.

Sometimes, sharp conversational curves feel like precipitous cliffs. I am still learning how to help people productively engage with difficult group dynamics by saying, as one boss and I described it, “stuff about stuff” – meaning, being direct and clear about social challenges as they emerge in collaborative work situations.

Time-out-of-Time, also known as “tooting”

There is a facilitator’s technique of structuring a “TOOT” to allow participants in a learning context to reflect on a particular topic or process or experience. The kids’ punishment called “time out” is cultural (not everyone uses it or even knows about it), but the idea of being discharged out of a group’s shared timestream into the corner (or wherever) is another kind of structured use of time. The intentions behind these activities are acceptable because they are familiar; even though someone may not like doing them, they are relatively comfortable because they are (more-or-less) common social experiences.

Then there’s what I do, sometimes, which is to say something spontaneously about something that is going on in a group that is within the realm of things most people have been trained not to say.  This is more than a sharp curve, and it calls upon whoever is involved to exercise a deeper level of social resilience. Mental agility has to be combined with emotional savvy, too. Lately, I’ve been pushed to this edge in almost every group I belong to. Now, if you start from a psychological perspective, it could be that I’m becoming increasingly disassociated from reality (since I am ignoring certain social norms). But if you start from a sociological perspective, then the question becomes something like, what is it about the relationships in these groups that keeps giving me reason to say stuff (about stuff)?

Each approach (the psychological, the social) has something useful to contribute to understanding the dynamics of whatever it is that is going on (with me, with the groups), but neither will capture the whole picture by itself. Psychology and sociology are complements of a greater phenomenon, call it culture or human evolution or the social construction of knowledge (or whatever academic or religious flavor you prefer).

Communication as science

The young discipline of communication is based on the notion of equilibrium between the individual and the social. This is not the typical chicken-or-egg question, because the basic assumption of communication is mutuality. My personality (e.g., tooting or not) is “called out” by the group, just as my participation in the group adds to (or detracts from) the character of the group: its norms and performance (for instance, as a team working toward certain goals). The fancy jargon word is constitution. It is a tricky word to define, so I am linking to the disambiguation page in Wikipedia, specifically to the section labeled “other uses.

Notice: “the well-being of an organism” and “to maintain or improve health” in addition to legal, medical, and political definitions of constitution. Not only are constitutions things (a noun) but also activities (a verb). The concept of constitution is the philosophical equivalent to the observer effect in quantum mechanics: at the sub-atomic level, physicists get what they look for because those dang-blasted tiny particles respond to being observed.

So it is with human behavior. We perceive what we’re looking for – or, more accurately, we understand things based upon the lens used for thinking. This is why applied social science, especially action learning/action research based in communication theory, can be useful in getting groups through difficult dynamics. In communication, everything is always happening simultaneously, there is no “cause” and “effect” – instead there are cycles and stages and intersections which involve history and the biographies of everyone involved.

Maybe its rocket science. For me it is a way to live with integrity.

tweaking the turns: resilience is systemic

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him

A Letter to My Elders

There were thirteen of us and Marlene, plus Gater. The Elders had specific roles: two Teachers, one Firekeeper, and a Singer. Sheila was our Chef. MP performed her customary on-demand interventions in addition to behind-the-scenes support and logistical planning.

Spotted Eagle’s Land
New Mexico

Thank you for calling things what they are: “violence,” “mendacity,” “personal issues.” Such blights on beauty must be removed if one would live in a good way.

I am saddened that you had to witness and forgive my carelessness and ignorance. I am horrified that I needed you to witness residues of sheer ugliness. I strive to close the kindness-to-self gap. I am this way: originally un-parented and yearning to feel joined. I will myself to be better.

Everything is a Lesson

Nat's Cairn in the San Juan River
Nat's Cairn in the San Juan River

I arrived into a whirlwind of preparation, barely getting to chuck my gear into the sacred pop-up before being put to work. Pulling on the only pair of work gloves visible, I remember thinking I would need to be careful to avoid a blister, as the hole at the base of the left thumb was significant. Must be why no one else is wearing them, I thought to myself. A few hours later, I was reluctant to stop and go down to the river. The five women cooling off and chatting by the San Juan were all new to me; I didn’t know what to talk about yet didn’t want to be held back by insecurity, either. It took awhile for my mind to recognize this as probably the only opportunity to rinse off before the official commencement of Ceremony. Could I have anticipated that acting on such thoughts would become profound learning opportunities?

Which comes first: listening or observation?

In terms of my developmental biography, I have needed repetition and convergence. tree (facing west)If explanatory language accompanies direct observation, then I might absorb the lesson at once, otherwise the behavioral evidence shows that I have a systemic weakness at absorbing important information upon first telling. Sometimes, depending on my internal relation to the content of the message, I might miss the point several times. My stunning ability to not notice visual information cropped up at several junctures – weakening the group, sometimes crucially. Ouch. On the second day, five of us got into the yarn: Carolina anchored the 90- and 180-degree weaving sweeps of, respectively, me & Athena and Joanne & Mary. My casual handling of the yarn invited critique.

“Matter is sacred.”

“We’re like that, aren’t we.” Margarita gazed steadily into my eyes once I realized that my zeal to line the gardens around the house with stones from the river had caused me to forget that she was not supposed to labor. It seems I couldn’t balance a focus on things equally with a focus on people. Remembering instructions – all of them always and the specifically relevant ones in particular – remains a high-priority goal for me. Passing on instructions given to one or a few of us to all of the rest of the members of our group seemed even more difficult. We were confronted not only with extending trust equally between Spotted Eagle and Viviana, but also with acting among ourselves on the basis of a similarly presumed and reciprocal trust.

There were thirteen of us and Marlene, plus Gater. The Elders had specific roles: two Teachers, one Firekeeper, and a Singer. Sheila was our Chef. MP performed her customary on-demand interventions in addition to behind-the-scenes support and logistical planning.

Two of the participants – Betty and Mary – were tasked exclusively with tending the fire; the rest of us were supposed to be interchangeable. Athena was drafted to assist with the fire, and Nat got to enhance the chicken coop. Otherwise any and each of us did whatever needed doing. All participants had been instructed to prepare in advance by fasting and considering questions of what we hoped to bring to, and gain from, Ceremony. I had come asking to be honed. Thank you (uncomfortable though it was) for not missing a single chance to plane through my rough spots so that what I seek to give can be more accurately focused. Now I know what it means to receive tough love!

“We have gusts.”

Several storms punctuated Ceremony. One instruction that was difficult for me to absorb came from Nancy. “Don’t look out the windows. Don’t invite the lightening to fall in love with you.” There were several instances when an instruction given to one or a few of us was not passed on, culminating in confusion and sometimes resulting in a public admonishment. At least twice, I found myself discounting a message from a peer, and once I failed to pass on an instruction that had been faithfully passed to me. We improved steadily, but chaos managed to overtake us (briefly) near the end, when nature joined the contest between those of us eager for Ceremony to end and those of us wishing it could continue. Given the alternatives that we had been discussing, I was absolutely relieved when Viviana discovered it was ‘just me’ who had misplaced the special folder.

“We measure time in moments.”

desert flowersIt has taken decades to come to terms with the valence I have of manifesting underlying tensions in a group through things I say or do. My awareness of being immersed in group-level dynamics began to develop by accident and happenstance. Twenty years ago, Spotted Eagle presented me with an embodied lesson of “what fear can do.” The first experiment catapulted me out of a job and onto the road, launching me into investigations where I have probed a range of boundaries. No sphere of social interaction has been off-limits, from interpersonal relationships with family, lovers, and friends to the structural hierarchies between democratic freedom (individual independence of thought and action) and institutionalized authority – my own (such as with students and colleagues) and with/against ‘the system’.

Spotted Eagle’s original lesson to me was about the risk of being incapacitated by the irrational emergence of feeling frightened. Since then, I have used the visceral sensation of unfounded fear (throbbing pulse, weak legs, rising anxiety in the presence of no identifiable threat) as a guide for activism.  Somehow, I decided that this kind of intrapersonal emotional reaction suggests the presence of an alternative timestream to the typical flows engendered by the technologically- and socially-constructed momentum of the last half-millennium.

Over the years, I have learned about my proper place in society and the world from the reactions of others. Just as with the physical and hormonal changes wrought by the monthly reproductive cycle, the ‘good’ (desirable, preferred) and  ‘bad’ (undesired, dispreffered) responses – especially from people I care about – provides crucial information for the process of unifying consciousness (perceptual awareness) with occupying this/my body. For me, such self-knowledge has become foundational to ethical action in our increasingly diverse, interactive, and rapidly-changing societies.

Many of my attempts to work deliberately with the energy of these valences have been failures, some of them excruciatingly so. Nonetheless I learn from each mistake and take hope with each tiny hint of success. My awareness of consequences remains fledgling, although I work diligently to accept responsibility for conscious choices as well as my less- and un-conscious behaviors, most especially those that lead to unintended effects and unwanted outcomes.

“Laugh and free the dolphins!”

The honor of being invited to participate in a Menopause Ceremony in an Indigenous way, smiling stonefollowing rituals taught to a properly-chosen person who was raised and trained traditionally, is a gift that exceeds my capacity to comprehend. The mix of meaningful discipline and unconditional love in the Ceremonial Way gives special rigor to the task of shaping a life worth living. Additional gifts – being knighted, for instance (to Pay Attention! ) – nearly overwhelmed my limited emotional resources. Thank you for showing me some of the junctures I missed, where my selfishness or ego took us through chronotopes less beautiful than other options. The record shows that, at times, I operated in sync with a Puberty Ceremony rather than in celebration of acquired wisdom.

How perfect that you were kind enough to let me know, before sending me back into the world, that I needed to wipe the boogers from my nose!

Make NERDAs the linguistic minority (proposal)

the future

Building on the potential for a paradigm shift is matter of recognition, marketing, and design. These processes can proactively influence each other, interacting and changing through the development of a project. All are contained within the conception and application of strategic planning.
Strategy has to involve conceptualizing the outcome in two different yet complementary ways. First, you must imagine what you want in terms of place. In the case of the next national conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID, US-based), the physical location will be some hotel in Atlanta, GA, but the more important issue is how the space of the place will be designed and implemented in order to generate the desired kinds of intercultural interaction. The second dimension that must be considered is time. By time, I do not mean the logistics of scheduling or considerations about the length of the event or even its parts. These are obviously important logistical factors that require detailed attention. However, the most important temporal factor to consider is how the conference contributes to long-term patterning of habits and attitudes for engaging in intercultural social interaction.

Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult: Buffered by Monolingualism
That would be me, and we NERDAs compose the largest percentage of the membership of RID. Most of us do not understand what it means to be Deaf. We want to understand, and we sure try hard, but our reality as native, hearing speakers of English in the United States is one of extreme linguistic privilege. No matter what other oppressions we may experience, we communicate with the same language as nearly everyone one else around us. NERDAs need to understand that we are affected by living in a society that has done more, historically, than any other country to enforce monolingualism. Unless you live or work in a dense urban city, it is quite possible that you never hear another language spoken in day-to-day living. Most Americans are protected from exposure to even tasting what it might be like to not know the language that would enable you to talk with your neighbor, your child’s teacher, shopkeepers and salespeople, peers in your classroom or a club, not to mention the doctor, police officer, realtor, banker, or the waitstaff at a restaurant where you must guarantee that there are no nuts or shellfish in the dish you want because you don’t want to risk anaphylactic shock.
NERDAs certainly cannot conceive of the intrapersonal, deliberate, conscious planning necessary to predict when and where and for how long we’ll need an interpreter, do not know the calculus of deciding why and for what reasons we’ll need an interpreter, and never have to weigh the costs – time, focused mental energy, unpredictable emotional surges – that come along with deciding, “Yes, in this situation I do need an interpreter,” or “No, in this situation I can manage without an interpreter.” Nor do we have to deal with the fallout from misjudging any of these factors: such as discovering an interpreter is necessary when it had not seemed so, or that the need is much longer/shorter than anticipated, or that the whole effort was a complete waste of time.

Atlanta 2011: Experimenting with New Norms
National conferences of professional associations occur for very specific reasons:

  • to further the organization’s business and
  • to provide members with professional development opportunities that are not available at home.

A critique offered by one of the other participants in the small group DEAF-FRIENDLY brainstorming sessions (described in the August 9 entry, “Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009)” was that the conference focuses too much on training. In the immediate moment, I was most aware of the turn-taking dynamic – how her comment did not have any relation to mine – but I soon realized that her observation is significant. Why are we designing the national conference like an extension of an interpreter training program? Granted, many RID members are still in the early phases of their professional careers, but if we design the conference with students in mind, we generate a comfortable and familiar container for learning as usual.

No wonder, then, that many interpreters arrive and proceed to engage in comfortable, familiar, and usual ways! An alternative would be to take MJ Bienvenu’s deconstruction by reversal to the extreme. This would create a professional development experience that would use the capacities of our national organization to the fullest potential. We already have the technology:

  • knowledge of Deaf culture
  • linguistic fluency in ASL and English
  • professionally trained ASL-English interpreters
  • extensive experience with interpreter request systems and accommodation services…

What we need is the will to apply the tools in an altered configuration, and a rationale to convince people to come.

A one-time experiment of mutual discovery
Instead of following the dominant, inherently oppressive model (accessibility provided for the Deaf), we reverse it (accessibility provided for the Hearing). This would generate an experience like none other. In some respects it would resemble an ASL Immersion retreat, and in some respects it would resemble the environment at residential schools for the Deaf. What it would offer is the intellectual and empathy-building experience of being the one who has to ask.
There would not need to be any commitment or promise to continue: we can see what happens, evaluate it, and then decide. If the storming phase re-emerges – so be it, that will be an honest, deep indicator of the organization’s developmental status. If we do establish a foundation for new norms, well, that will be incredibly exciting and everyone who attends will have bragging rights for the rest of their life:

“I was there when…!”

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Anaphylactic shock (Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009), Reflexivity

expressing the inexpressible

Trevize is grumpy as hell that he’s chosen Gaia – a superorganism – instead of either the technologically-superior First Foundation or the “mentalic” (psychosocial scientifically advanced) Second Foundation as the future of humankind.

The moment of coincidence took my breath away. I opened Isaac Asimov’s fifth book in The Foundation Series, thinking I would start to read it for a few minutes to shift my mind toward sleep, having just finished watching Maya’s extraordinary documentary on Toekomsten 02068. A futurologist, Maya interviewed people who attended the 01958 World’s Fair in Brussels, inquiring as to their experiences then, their reflections on how society has changed – or not – since then, and their projections another fifty years into the future. Jose interpreted the Flemish for me, gesturing occasionally to supplement the English.

The film confirms and goes beyond the fiftieth anniversary retrospective exhibition at The Atomium, Between Utopia and Reality. I spent an afternoon there last week: incredible. Honestly, walking out of the tram station and catching my first full view of this massive structure was awe-inspiring; it felt alien. As I approached, that impression only intensified. This architectural wonder representing an iron crystal looms into the atmosphere. I wondered if my fear of heights would hamper exploration.

I detailed my enthusiasm about the exhibit to a gang of potential troublemakers, carrying on about how well the exhibit presented the spirit of achievement and optimism of attendees while posing the critical questions indicated by evident contradictions in design and implementation. Specifically, how the constructed sensibility of a joined and shared humanness across fifty-two countries and widely-disparate cultures highlighted the public demise of colonialism and the threatening battle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The witnesses/participants in Maya’s film confirm the dominance of the Fair’s spectacle over its overt theme,”A World View, A New Humanism,” critiquing the Fair’s overt display of technological prowess and power. Mirroring the implicit message of the Fair itself, the insidious face of nationalism remains largely unnamed by the film’s participants although it is clearly recognized. One man laughs as he recalls the positioning of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s pavilions with the Church in-between. The visual production of the film is superb: the subjects speak conversationally in 02008 against backdrops of scenes from the Fair in 01958. The imagery is fantastic: a science fiction tableau that, while sometimes quaint, in other respects still appears futuristic today.

k the arrow.JPG.jpg

Listening to the film’s participants muse about what has changed or not over the last half-century is sobering. Almost universally, the bouyant hope that they experienced at the World’s Fair has faded to a grim concern. The most poignant evidence for me involved language. Many of the participants described worsening conditions of today’s society, or at least that there have been no substantive changes, certainly no improvement, since 01958. While recognizing achievements and differences between these two times, the underlying international dynamics remain essentially the same. A man who worked as a translator at the 01958 Fair spoke of how the speed of communication would increase because of all the innovations (e.g., the telephone); while telecommunications may indeed be the single driving factor in the vast transformations of globalization, the apparent need for speed unifies the present with the past.

The impetus for acceleration is accompanied with a selfishness that was variously described by participants in terms of money (for us)/peanuts (for them), abundance/lack, even suggesting hoarding/poverty. A young person of today wondered why we – who have so much – cannot share more with those who have so little? I felt the most telling clue to these dynamics was an instance when a participant shifted from Dutch to English. He was describing the insistent accumulation of “us” (he may have meant Belgians specifically but my sense was the broader white west) in contrast with inequities in Africa (in particular, although again he may have meant the broader underdeveloped world). In the midst of his impassioned speech he described what he perceives as the dominant, individual attitude, abruptly codeswitching to English:

“I don’t care!”

Admittedly, it is a challenge to care about people and places removed from one’s intimate, social, and professional circles. Sometimes it is difficult to care even within these microcosms. I am not sure when, during viewing, that I began thinking of Gaia. Probably at the point of temporal shift in focus, as participants shifted their gaze from reflecting on the past to imagining the future. I recalled the lecture at the University of Massachusetts last year by Dr. Lynn Margulis concerning her theory of endosymbiosis, a variation of the Gaia hypothesis. There is a commonsense-ness to this concept that adheres to the basic scientific principle of simplicity; I am astonished at the resistance in the scientific community to grant much credibility to the hypothesis. Indeed, at the lecture I attended there was not a single question from the audience – a phenomena which occurred only this one time during an entire year’s series of lectures. Of course, the common sense can be wrong, but often intellectual absolutisms are also proven false, or at least contingent. For instance, this incredible notion of “being an individual” as if no interdependence facilitates existence.

m2 looking down.jpg
Jose summarized the overall gist of people’s articulations in the film. The older people, she explained, can attribute some meaning, some vision to the future, while the young people in the film are at a loss. Perhaps, she mused, when you are young you have not yet accumulated enough experience to be able to project ahead. Reflecting on her own life, she said the hype and hope of the 01958 World’s Fair lasted until 1965, and then something changed. “You could feel it in the air,” she said. “Maybe things were not going to be ok.

Returning to Asimov, Trevize has decided he must re-discover Earth. Twenty thousand years into the future, Asimov imagines a universe in which the planetary origin of humanity has become lost in antiquity. “How is it possible,” Trevize wonders, “that we have all forgotten?

Memory depends on what we say and don’t say, which stories we tell, and how we tell them. Perhaps the future does, too.

Near the end of the 02068 documentary, reflecting on its message and projecting its potential meaningfulness, is a quote by Fred Polak about an emerging sustainable vision for the future. He qualifies: “our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined” (translated into English, 1961, The image of the future). I found info on Polak from Merrill Findlay, On the fluttering of butterfly wings, a member of an organization called Imagine the Future Inc.

Findlay describes Polak as

“a Dutch sociologist who, in the late ’40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then ‘act as magnets on our behaviour in the present’ to precipitate social change.”

I’ll adapt Findlay’s question (posed in 1994) to the narratives in Maya’s film, encompassing the challenges left by the shifts in attitude from a pervasive belief, a mere five decades ago, that ‘things will get better’ to today’s stark pessimism that ‘we may not even make it.’

What sort of future are these words and images drawing us toward?

The thing is, we can use language to remember what we need – not just what we want. We can use words and stories to motivate and propel trajectories that lead us to the sustainable future so many of us believe is possible.
j2 understand belgian history.jpg

space out of time

The first act of will is to decide that time does not matter.

The second is to surrender will to the rock.


Immersed in the presence of this new language, I forgot that I was here for a reason! “We know you love your metaphors,” Rachel teased before I came. The other roommate just laughed. 🙂

Lauren described my fourth rock balance as “precarious.” Ah – momentarily I recognized myself. “Taut control,” said Andy Goldsworthy in an excerpt of a video we watched, “can be the death of our work.” As the workshop ended, during the closing circle, Rita recalled Lila’s introduction of Hermes, the god of boundaries and the travelers who cross them. (Hermes is also the god of thieves: what greater boundaries are there to cross than those imposed by custom and law? (shhhh!))

I had forgotten. Our teacher, Lila Higgins, spoke first in the closing circle, describing the cairn she’d built a few days earlier at the crossroads leading to our final rock balancing site,

Cairn at the Crossroads.jpg

and her delight in communion with the unknown balancer who had rebuilt it in the days since. Listening to her, my consciousness was nudged to remember: I was here to mark the current turn in the trajectory of my life. Then, after others including myself had spoken, Rita recalled Hermes. How had that god slipped my mind?! It seems I had achieved – if only for a short while – the intention expressed by another workshopper,

“to explore the present as a rock does.”


We watched videos of Bill Dan building rock balances, and also of George Quasha. My mind required time (exposure, continuity) to shift from its usual operational state-of-consciousness (ahem) to this altered perceptual state “charged with an air of contingency” in which time has no substance. For hours at a stretch, I experience only concentration and sensation: ripples of subdued emotion (annoyance, tenderness, impatience, resolve, fear of failure, renewed commitment) and yearning for that satisfying moment when the rock finds its place.


Will my intellectual work emanate a similar resonance? I hope so. 🙂 I have felt similar types of ‘click moments‘ in the past. Trusting them has led me here – to this junction, where I discover conviction deepening without reducing uncertainty.


Carter Ratcliff introduces the artistic ethic of George Quasha (who is inspired by John Cage) with words that likewise describe the ethical center of my action research goal:

“…an axis is like an intention:
a force that, as it
generates possibilities, gives them a
provisional but
intelligible order.”


More photos of rock balancers and some rock balances produced during this workshop are on this page at Lila’s rockbalancer site.
See also hickoree, rebranca46 (Rocks Balancing), and bebalance (Super Balance: Birds, Bottle, Bricks, Birds Again…).

compliance or complicity?

Heavy talk with friends, lately – about the ethos of the age being caught up in urgency and crisis, possibly such that we fail to recognize the sweep of history and our complicity with trends we would ethically not choose if we were aware of the relation between our immediate, daily lives and how the simple things we do, moment-by-moment, actually compose larger historical trends.
The NYTimes published a piece on the infamous Milgram Experiments (social psychology) earlier this month, posing the question: would you pull that switch? The article details some new findings that help to understand both the context (why were – and are :-/ – so many people willing to cause pain to others?) and the range of individual reasons for responding to the context as they actually did.
Contextually, subjects were disoriented by the unfamiliarity of the situation, and they were rushed – put under time pressure. The combination of uncertainty and urgency resulted in disorientation – with its obvious (if undetermined) influence on decision-making. This may be a stretch, but it brings to mind some audience reactions to “The Dark Knight” last night, in which people laughed at moments that seemed produced to disturb, while missing designed moments of humor. It struck me as a delayed reaction caused (possibly) by the frenetic pace of volatile action. Similar dynamics occur in interpersonal interactions too, for instance, when people laugh upon hearing awful news – a miscued reaction because of the awkwardness of the situation.
So, there is the matter of complicity – a rather unconscious going-along-with the zeitgeist (or, for some, a conscious embrace of the spirit of the times – for all kinds of reasons), and then there is the matter of compliance. Expressions of pain, per se, were not usually conclusive in convincing switch-pullers to stop. This is what is used to illustrate that the obedience factor is such a deep component of human behavior, and – more subtly – “demonstrate[s] individual differences in perceptions of accountability.” (In my imagination, it is not hard to extend this to all the ways in which we – the relatively privileged – turn away from the cries of the relatively un/underprivileged. Pain – especially that of others – is insufficient as a motivator.)
However, “the demand by the subject to stop [is now identified] as the turning point.” People who disregarded this were going to continue, no matter what – their conception of authority/authorization/responsibility/accountability simply ended at the “fact” of the social scientific structure. Those who did stop – whether sooner or later – exercised some personal judgment, “decid[ing] that the learner’s right to stop trumped the experimenter’s right to continue.”
The phrasing of this interests me, particularly in my professional role as teacher, and even more specifically as a teacher interested in cultivating critical thinking skills, using non-standard pedagogies and experimenting with the boundaries of student expectations concerning what a college class is supposed to be. There is power in this position, and I use it – intentionally, deliberately, yet – I hope – with compassion for how challenging it is to have the common or usual disrupted in service of a goal that can only be presented in amorphous and ambiguous terms.
Related information at “Psychologists find a way to replicate Milgram’s classic obedience experiment.”

it’s the tug that matters, or being “upside right”

Mike said that, talking (to himself?!) as he entertained a couple of neighborhood girls by trying to figure out one of their toys.
Yesterday was full of tugs. I spent the afternoon and evening enjoyably, after taking a much longer time than usual to blog (and cook! shhhhhhh). Being on the periphery of two kidnappings with happy endings left me full of vicarious emotion. For the last three days I have been feeling a bit de-centered, as if there’s “a disturbance in The Force” (!), or – as the new roomie said, I am “out of alignment” with myself. My thinking is slow, difficult; my self-consciousness heightened. I speculate that I’m experiencing fallout from being (now) in a timespace different than expected (on land rather than still at sea), or the process of absorbing recent life lessons, or the malaise that lingers from old wounds . . .
I know I don’t have the jazzy hectoring tone considered most successful in writing on/for the web. The thing is, I don’t want to play into that collusively heeyyy cowboy insider attitude that Jack Shaffer promotes. Yet, I appreciate that friends do (sometimes, smile) actually read the blog and (rarer still, hence precious) give me feedback on my writing. Building “indexes” over the past few days must have put me in a summative mood, because I carried that mode into writing about Alf’s freedom instead of just blogging the moment. Perhaps I’m feeling it more necessary than usual to justify my existence (I got flamed!), to explain the reasons for my choices, or otherwise try to articulate how I perceive things going together? I am also prepping to teach, and I never (ever!) stop learning.
Even though I’ll probably never capture the tone of our times, my mind resonated with resemblances to another angle of Caleb Crain’s reflections on online literary style. In particular, he writes (and I insert comments):

I’ve kept a blog for several years (ditto), and although its readership is tiny (mine too), I of course notice when the hits rise and fall. (I should pay more attention!) I seem to get more readers when I post frequently, when I write about people or topics in the headlines, when I have been drawn into a conflict, and when I write something that speaks to a self-image that a group of people share. (Hmmm, it would be interesting to know if any such patterns are evident here in Reflexivity.) Over the years I’ve gradually revealed more personal details (we differ in this); I still reveal very little, comparatively, but enough to entitle me to say that I feel a tug there, too. Perhaps the tugs that I feel are a better data source, come to think of it, than my blog’s underemployed hit counter. If I were to interpret those tugs, I would say that writing on the internet tends to be more popular when it satisfies the reader’s wish to be connected–the wish not to miss out.

Funny – is Crain suggesting an internal (his own) or external (from others) tug to reveal more? Where (with whom) does the wish to be connected originate, and can it be cultivated as a social/relational force for institutional/historical change?
Only if we act on those wishes. 🙂

calculating the dimension of the universe

Chunks of quantum wave packets defined by continuous variables of position, energy and momentum may not yield a frequency/wavelength ratio but – metonymically (something the human brain does via consciousness) – couldn’t we use this language to describe the shape of the social world?

visual perceptions

Work on optical illusions show how the distance from which one views a face alters the expression you think you’re seeing. Some constructions are creepy!
I’m intrigued with the function of distance. Part of what me and my committee need to sketch out is the scope of the lens I’ll use in exploring the practice of simultaneous interpretation at the European Parliament. Since each of our relative distances from the object of study differ, establishing a reasonable range might be a challenge.